The most nervous I have ever been while leading worship was during chapel at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I fretted for weeks over what songs to sing, finally settled on a set, and practiced as much as I could. The day came, and I got on stage to play the songs I had planned. Everything went great. I made no mistakes and people sang along well. A couple of weeks later I asked the guy who plans chapel if anyone had any feedback. He said, “Yes. Dr. Akin (the school president) said you sang fine, but you didn’t actually lead us.”
I was devastated. And he was right. I was given the responsibility to lead a gathering of people in worship to our Great King, and I failed. From that day I took to the task of studying what it meant to “lead worship.” I was a competent singer and musician, but I was not a great worship leader. When I lead worship now, I know that it is critical to lead, and these are some of the things I focus on weekly.
I say it nearly every week as we begin each Sunday morning service—we are created to worship and the focus of our worship drifts easily. One reason we gather is to refocus our hearts and minds. Worship leaders should be deliberate in beginning each service. When you really think about it, it’s ridiculous to start a church service with, “How we doing this morning?!” If I’m honest, most weeks the answer to that question is, “Not great!”
The beginning of a church service should be a time of preparation for the work the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish. I lead everyone in a few moments of focussed prayer. We pray that God would lay aside distractions, we confess that we have sinned, but that His grace is great, and we pray that our hearts and minds would reset our worship back on God.
Know What You’re Going to Say
Worship leaders have a pretty bad reputation for highjacking the pulpit in their set, and often they come by it honestly. Few things are more distracting than a worship leader rambling between songs with no real focus, just random platitudes about God. Our job on Sunday morning is not to preach a sermon. At Valley Life churches, our job is to re-preach the sermon. This is primarily done through the songs we sing, but as the worship leader, I know that people are quickly and easily distracted. They need to be reminded of what was preached only minutes ago. I use this as an opportunity to bring in a Psalm to echo the sermon.
Brian, our pastor, and I work closely together in working through the sermon, which shapes everything I say during the music. Everything I say is prepared in advance. Little to nothing is off the cuff. This protects me from accidental heresy or rambling like I mentioned above. As much as you prepare the music, prepare how you will lead between the songs.
Engage with Your People
I have a strong temptation every week to close my eyes and focus on the chords I’m playing and words I’m singing. I naturally sing and play that way. But I know that I have to make eye contact with my people to encourage them to worship without inhibition. This creates a natural connection with people and helps them recognize that you have an agenda, somewhere to lead them. Keeping your eyes closed, or constantly looking at a confidence monitor or music stand creates a barrier. It also helps me as a worshipper to look around the crowd. I know people’s stories. It encourages me when I see a husband and wife singing together about God’s love and grace when I know that they are depending on His love and grace to restore their marriage.
Worship leaders have a unique opportunity every week to lead people to respond to the gospel of Jesus. If you simply stand on stage and sing three songs, you’re not really leading. Encourage your people, engage with your people, and lead your people to respond to the gospel.